Vijay Seshadri

Undergraduate Discipline

Writing

Graduate Program

MFA Writing Program

BA, Oberlin College. MFA, Columbia University. Author of Wild Kingdom, The Long Meadow, The Disappearances (New and Selected Poems; Harper Collins India), and 3 Sections (September, 2013); former editor at The New Yorker; essayist and book reviewer in The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, The Threepenny Review, The American Scholar, and various literary quarterlies. Recipient of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, James Laughlin Prize of the Academy of American Poets, MacDowell Colony’s Fellowship for Distinguished Poetic Achievement, The Paris Review’s Bernard F. Conners Long Poem Prize; grants from New York Foundation for the Arts, National Endowment for the Arts, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation; and area studies fellowships from Columbia University. SLC, 1998–

Current undergraduate courses

Nonfiction Workshop

Spring

This workshop will focus on the elements common to a wide range of nonfiction writing. We will examine and analyze the structure of the well-formed sentence, of the paragraph, of the personal essay and memoir fragment, and of literary journalism. Readings will be drawn from a wide range of contemporary texts, some very current, with a few classic texts as models; and the class will be assigned exercises based on the readings. We will look closely at some point in the semester at experimental nonfiction writing. Students will also be asked to workshop at least two substantial pieces of nonfiction prose and a number of smaller pieces. We will investigate the issues surrounding the notions of style and voice and will spend a considerable amount of time thinking collectively about how factual material and research are accommodated within the stylistic constraints of literary texts. My expectation is that the discussions will be lively and civil and that everyone will contribute.

Faculty

Previous courses

First-Year Studies: Shapes, Sizes, and Sentences: First-Year Seminar in Nonfiction Writing

FYS

In this yearlong nonfiction writing seminar and workshop, we will examine, analyze, and dissect pieces of factual narrative from the perspective of their formal elements and then strive to reproduce those elements. The elements under examination will comprise the universal structures of narrative art, such as plot and character; structures peculiar to genres and subgenres, such as journalism, the essay, the biography, and the autobiography; and what could be called calisthenic elements, which represent the physical actions and movements of writing and the exercise of strength and effort of attention that those actions require. We’ll look at works according to their size—micro (or flash) nonfiction, the classic literary and personal essay, hybrid forms that live between the essay and the poem and the essay and the short story, oral history, short- and long-form journalism, full-blown memoirs—so that we can appraise the dilemmas and opportunities that size presents at each order of literary magnitude. We’ll look at works according to their shape—classical narrative shape—and the way it is either conformed to, elaborated, or violated in nonfiction writing. We will discuss the rhetorical dynamics that obtain between the different levels of organization in a piece of prose and the exchange of energy between microscopic and macroscopic realms in the ecosystem of a successful work of nonfiction art. We will talk a lot about the English sentence, read and write in equal proportions, and spend much time thinking about style. Students will be asked to write both exercises and pieces that they conceive independently; readings will range in time from Biblical narrative to famous contemporary and near contemporary texts and will include, among others, works by the author of the Book of Job, Aristotle, Montaigne, Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt, Kierkegaard, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Mary McCarthy, Vladimir Nabokov, James Baldwin, Janet Malcolm, Jamaica Kincaid, Susan Sheehan, Nancy Mairs, David Foster Wallace, and John D’Agata. The differences among these writers will be reconciled by our investigating and understanding how—across time, space, race, class, gender, and culture—they deal with the same rhetorical problems and the same problems of meaning and arrive at many of the same solutions. We will, of course, also talk about race, class, gender, doubt, despair, joy, dread, happiness, and affliction—but primarily in the context of how they are embodied and transformed by the techniques of literary art. We will also step, gingerly, into new media.

Faculty

Form and Feeling in Nonfiction Prose

Fall

While the larger focus of this class will be on the art of storytelling, the minute-by-minute concern will center on the instinctive choices and movements of a piece of writing as it unfolds and develops. We will be very specific and concrete and conceive of ourselves as the mechanics and engineers of our souls. We will spend a lot of time exploring rhetoric as the art of persuasion and concentrate on tone, diction, rhythm, pacing, and transitions in effective prose. We will figure out how a writer generates, sustains, and controls energy on the page and think a lot about how to make space for the uncanny and the imaginative within nonfiction writing. Reading will comprise a series of essays and at least one book. Writing will comprise five-to-seven exercises of no more than 500 words and two-to-three larger pieces, approximately 3,000 words each, which will be discussed by the whole class. The discussion will be lively and pertinent.

Faculty

Narrative Persuasion

While the larger focus of this class will be on the art of storytelling, the minute-by-minute concern will center on the particular choices and movements of a piece of writing as it unfolds and develops. We will be very specific and concrete, and conceive of ourselves as the mechanics and engineers of our souls. We will spend a lot of time exploring rhetoric as the art of persuasion, and concentrate on tone, diction, rhythm, pacing, and transitions in effective prose. We will figure out how a writer generates, sustains, and controls energy on the page. Reading will comprise a series of essays and at least one book. Writing will comprise five to seven exercises of no more than five hundred words and two larger pieces, approximately three thousand words each, which will be discussed by the whole class. The discussion will be lively and pertinent.

Faculty

Nonfiction Workshop: Rational and Irrational Narrative

Spring

While the larger focus of this class will be on the art of storytelling, the minute-by-minute concern will center on the instinctive choices and movements of a piece of writing as it unfolds and develops. We will be very specific and concrete and conceive of ourselves as the mechanics and engineers of our souls. We will spend a lot of time exploring rhetoric as the art of persuasion and concentrate on tone, diction, rhythm, pacing, and transitions in effective prose. We will figure out how a writer generates, sustains, and controls energy on the page and think a lot about how to make space for the uncanny and the imaginative within nonfiction writing. Reading will comprise a series of essays and at least one book. Writing will comprise five to seven exercises of no more than 500 words and two larger pieces, approximately 3,000 words each, which will be discussed by the whole class. The discussion will be lively and pertinent.

Faculty

Nonfiction Writing

Spring

This workshop will focus on the elements common to a wide range of nonfiction writing. We will examine and analyze the structure of the well-formed sentence, of the paragraph, of the personal essay and memoir fragment. Readings will be drawn from a wide range of contemporary and classic texts, and the class will be assigned exercises based on the readings. We will look closely, at some point in the semester, at contemporary experimental nonfiction writing. Students will also be asked to workshop at least two substantial pieces of nonfiction prose and a number of smaller pieces. We will investigate the issues surrounding the notions of style and voice and will spend a considerable amount of time thinking collectively about how factual material and research are accommodated within the stylistic constraints of literary texts. My expectation is that the discussions will be lively and civil and that everyone will contribute.

Faculty

Rhetoric and Reality in Prose and Poetry

Spring

“Raid Kills Bugs Dead”

The subtitle of this class is a famous advertising slogan. It is also a curious rhetorical figure known as a pleonasm. This lecture will examine rhetoric traditionally conceived as the art of persuasion—an art that has encompassed a rich body of figures, from the profound (metaphor) to the quaint (pleonasm). It will also examine rhetoric broadly conceived as comprising not only the rules but also the structures of public speech, from the poem to the story to the essay to the sermon to the polemic to the political address to the ad campaign. Conference time will be devoted to workshopping, with an eye to the rhetorical achievements, stories, poems, and essays written by students in response to the themes of the class or to prompts based on current class discussion. The lecture itself will make a whirlwind tour through classical, biblical (as in the King James Bible), Elizabethan and Jacobean (paying careful attention to poems of seduction, poems of supplication to God, and texts of hellfire and damnation), Augustan and Romantic, and Modernist and contemporary (Joyce, Auden, Bukowski, Jamaica Kincaid, Mario Cuomo) examples of language made persuasive, interesting, or merely beautiful. Theorists accompanying us will range from Aristotle and Quintilian to Kenneth Burke and Marshall McLuhan, but we will spend most of our time closely reading rhetorically triumphant examples of literature to see how they work. We will look at masterpieces whose consequences are liberating and, briefly, at ones whose consequences are deplorable—hideous even. At some point, we will ask ourselves if there is or is not a difference between rhetoric and reality.

Faculty